Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Journey of Control and Powerlessness / Parshat Pikudei

It’s been a long, cold winter in this part of the country, but perhaps far worse where you live. Everyone I know is hankering for a vacation in a balmy clime because spring is not yet around the corner. The locker room conversation at the gym this morning was a continuous kvetch about the cold. Several people said, “What I wouldn’t give to get out of here for a few days.” A flight out, a car trip south, a journey to anywhere snow doesn’t fall.

The Israelite are embarking on a journey in a place snow never falls. The Sinai Wilderness is Eden compared with Egypt, but for people who have been slaves all their lives, it is frightening place of unknowns.

God has revealed the Torah. The Mishkan has been designed, built, and consecrated. The priests have been anointed and are prepared to offer a complex array of sacrifices, each in its own way at its own time. The cloud of God’s Glory rests atop the Mishkan, a sign that God’s Presence dwells among Israel. The very last verse of Parshat Pikudei, the very last portion in Exodus, reads:
For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout ma’aseihem (“their journeys”). (Exodus 40:38)
At the Reed Sea and again at Sinai, God erupted into the lives of the Israelites, dramatic, stunning, astounding. Now God will be a constant in their lives – a cloud hovering above the Tabernacle by day, fire by night, always visible, always present. While we might expect and wish this to assure them smooth travels, we know that their four decades in the Wilderness will be anything but smooth sailing. Life, however promising, is fraught with trials and tribulations. What is true for Israelites is true for each of us. That is the nature of every life journey.

Midrash Tanhuma (Pikudei #3) speaks of the journey of the individual, from before conception to the end of life. This long midrash describes how God plucks a designated soul from the Garden of Eden and implants it in a designated drop of semen and readies it to create life. The soul is then taken on a whirlwind tour of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) to view the fate of the righteous, to Gehenna to see the fate of the wicked, and then – even more alarmingly – to see its own life laid out before it, including where it will die and be buried. Having toured the panorama of the universe and its own life, the soul is bolted into its mother’s womb for nine months. When its time to be born arrives, the soul balks and objects. So the angel assigned to escort it into the world gives it a klopf and knocks all memory of what it has seen out of its head. The newborn emerges into the light and air of the world without any memory of what will be. It lives its life in ignorance of its future – as we all do. When its time to die arrives, the angel reappears and asks, “Do you recognize me?” and the person who did not wish to be born into the world, weeps at having to leave it.

The midrash is quite long, so I would like to share with you three short pieces for your consideration because they contain elements that are disconcerting or troubling, but upon examination reveal wisdom for us.

1. First, the opening words of the midrash:
Before the formation of the embryo in its mother’s womb, the Holy One decrees what it is to be in the end – male or female, weak or strong, poor or rich, short or tall, ungainly or handsome, scrawny or fat, humble or insolent. God also decrees what is to happen to it. But not whether it is to be righteous or wicked, a matter God places solely in the person’s power.
We might be inclined to reduce this passage to a 4th century acknowledgement of nature and nurture: God plays the role of nature, supplying sex and genetic traits for potential strength, size, looks, and personality. The individual, however, retains sole responsibility for his or her moral decisions. But there are two categories that should give us pause: the midrash claims that wealth is God’s decision, and that the events of a person’s life are in God’s hands. We would be inclined to think that poverty and wealth, as well as the events that constitute one’s life journey, result from a confluence of factors: one’s family of origin, where one grows up, the decisions one makes, the people one comes into contact with, and so on. How many of us would claim that God is in control of all this? Would this not contradict the notion of free will we so cherish, and on which our lives and societies are built? How literally should we take what Tanhuma says?

Allow me to suggest that the Rabbis who penned Tanhuma are saying this: So much happens to a person in life. We can hardly wrap our brains around the complexity of our lives and the many factors and influences that impinge upon the course and quality of our lives. The one thing that is certain is that our moral decisions are solely ours – we are free to choose at every instant. Our choices are never infinite – the world doesn’t work that way – but we do have choices, and God stands with us at every choice urging us to make the best choice possible.

2. Here’s the second passage:
[After the angel plucks a soul from the Garden of Eden and brings it to God] the Holy One says to the soul, “Enter the drop that is in such-and-such an angel’s hand.” The soul opens its mouth and says, “Master of the universe, the world in which I have been dwelling since the day You created me is enough for me. Why do You wish to have me, who am holy and pure, hewn from the mass of Your glory, enter this fetid drop?” The Holy One replies, “The world I will have you enter will be more beautiful for you than the one in which you have dwelled. Indeed, when I formed you, I formed you only for this drop.”
If Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) is paradise – the place of our origin and the place we long to return, the idyllic place of peace and perfection – why does God say, “The world I will have you enter will be more beautiful for you than the one in which you have dwelled”? The truth is that every life entails pain and suffering. No one’s life is unalloyed joy and happiness, beginning to end. Is God lying? Or is God deceiving the soul to subdue it?

I think the answer is in the words “for you”: “The world I will have you enter will be more beautiful for you than the one in which you have dwelled.” In theory, Gan Eden is an unsurpassable utopia. But imagine yourself in Gan Eden. What would you do? How long could you be there before you were tearing your hair out looking for something meaningful to do? Who would find existence in utopia purposeful? None of us seeks out pain and suffering, but all of us find meaning in meeting challenges and overcoming struggles, in the soul-growth that results from meeting life head-on.

3. The third piece is the passage that closes out the midrash:
The man [on the verge of death] pleads with the angel, “You have already taken me out of two worlds and made me enter this world.” The angel says, “Have I not told you that you were formed against your will, were born against your will, were alive against your will, and against your will are destined to give an account and reckoning before the Holy One blessed be God?”
First, a few words of explanation: The “two worlds” from which the angel plucked the soul are the Garden of Eden where it originally resided, and the womb where it abided for nine months of gestation.

When the angel says, “…you were formed against your will…” the midrash echoes the teaching of R. Elazar ha-Kapor in Pirke Avot 4:29:
…against your will you were formed, against your will were born; against your will you lived, against your will you will die; and against your will you are destined to give an account and reckoning before the Ruler of rulers, the Holy One blessed be God.
That’s a cheery thought, isn’t it? On one hand it sounds like R. Elazar ha-Kapor is saying we are entirely powerless: we are born, we live, we die, and then we stand in judgment before God. But perhaps R. Elazar, along with the Rabbis who crafted the midrash in Tanhuma, are acknowledging in a very in-your-face manner the truth we sometimes avoid. That is, there is much over which we have no control, and that “much” includes some big-ticket items such as our very existence and the fact of our mortality. When we come to grips with that and fully accept it – no longer expending precious energy railing against it – we can focus on what we can control and see these pockets of control as divine blessings pregnant with sacred possibilities. What we can do under our own control points us in the direction of our sacred mission in this world.

We cannot choose the hand dealt us, but it is ours to decide how to play it. Will we use our talents, skills, and energy in ways we will be proud to report to God -- and claim for ourselves – when all is said and done? Will our efforts be directed toward helping others or only promoting our own selves? Will our lives bless the world and those who inhabit it with us?

We cannot control the facts of our existence and mortality, nor our genetics, families of origin, nation of origin, and so much more, yet we can transcend many of the givens by sanctifying our lives through out choices and thereby blessing the world and the people in our lives.

With parshat Pikudei, we close out Sefer Shemot (Exodus) and say, chazak chazak v’nitchazeik – may we go from strength to strength, strengthened by Torah and strengthening one another.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


  1. Re: Item 2 - (relying on the English only). The world you about to enter is more beautiful for you. Not to you, but rather because of you. Your entry into the world is important, and you will, or can, in some way make it better.
    Shabbat Shalom!

  2. it helps to be re-focused on the opportunity before us to choose our input and response when events are overwhelming; thank you and Shabbat Shalom.